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Program gives free books to all Hillsborough kids
They'll come monthly to children until they turn 5.
By Elisabeth Dyer, Times Staff Writer
Published February 27, 2008
Reece Cohen, 16 months, looks at a book Tuesday with his mother, Justine Cohen, far right, as his grandmother Dawn Joost holds his younger sister, Nadia, in Tampa.
[Carrie Pratt | Times]
TAMPA - Free books.
"Does it get any better?" asked Justine Cohen, 33, of Tampa.
When a book comes in the mail for her 16-month-old son, Reece, his older brother Spencer, 4, gets jealous.
"He takes the book and reads to his brother," she said.
Reece is one of about 2,000 children who have received books through Hillsborough County's Imagination Library. Now every child born after Sept. 1, 2006, can sign up for the free books, regardless of income. One will come in the mail every month until a child turns 5.
"We're taking the project countywide," said Joe Stines, director of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library system.
Created by Dolly Parton's Dollywood Foundation, the Imagination Library sends books to a half-million children in 45 states, Canada and Great Britain.
With an annual birthrate of nearly 18,000, Hillsborough County has the potential to become the largest of Imagination Library's distribution programs, says David Dotson, executive director of the foundation.
A month ago, Cohen also signed up Nadia, her newly born daughter. She was still at University Community Hospital.
"It's surprising, even at her age, hearing my voice and the rhythm of the words calms her," she said. "I know as a parent, I'm my children's first teacher."
Judith Becker Bryant, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida, says the program is fantastic.
"Reading to children of any age can be extremely valuable for different reasons at different ages," she said. "It exposes them to language, the alphabet, the relationship between pictures and words and also serves a function of an important interaction between a parent and child."
Hillsborough's program is a shared effort by the library, the Children's Board, Head Start, the public schools, United Way of Tampa Bay and the U.S. Postal Service.
Dotson says the foundation also has been talking with Pinellas County about participating.
The Imagination Library has grown exponentially since Dolly Parton started it in 1996 in Sevier County, Tenn. Parton, the first in her family to graduate from high school, wanted all children to have books at home.
The Dollywood Foundation chooses books through a panel of educators and experts and buys in bulk for discounts. The first book a child receives, regardless of age, is The Little Engine That Could.
The remainder of books are age-appropriate and shipped by the Dollywood Foundation to the child's home address. About six are written in Spanish and English. The last book comes before a child's fifth birthday: Look Out Kindergarten Here I Come.
"Each book costs about $2.30 to get into a child's hand," Dotson said. If every child signs up, the cost in five years will be about $2.7-million.
United Way of Tampa Bay serves as the program's fiscal agent and will accept donations to help fund the program.
"A $30 donation provides a child one book a month for a year," Stines said.
How to sign up To register for Imagination Library, download an application at www.unitedwaytampabay.com/imaginationlibrary, call (813) 272-5017, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or pick up an application at any branch of the Hillsborough County Public Library.